Mithu Sen is a provocateur, a risk–taker in deceptively gentle guise.
At the heart of her work is a compulsion to peel away received, overt
notions of the self and probe beneath them. She typically turns the tables on viewers. Her early drawings
of the body were mesmerizingly delicate, yet also incisively discomfiting and sexualized. Sen’s sculptures—
whether altered domestic objects or room–size installations—have a similarly sharpened, uncanny physicality.
She gives her array of diverse, suggestive materials (dental polymer, false teeth, human hair, leather, bones,
and chiseled walls) an undercurrent of confrontation. When invited to speak at the Solomon R. Guggenheim
Museum in conjunction with Asia Contemporary Art Week in 2016, Sen did a performance piece that was part
parody of an artist’s talk and part ironic interpretation of the organizer’s technical specifications for presenters—
delivered in adamant but incomprehensible gibberish with accompanying video.
Sen pokes at the hierarchies of social identity—political, sexual, racial, regional, cultural, and linguistic—
looking deeply, and generously, into human nature. In many ways, her work is a form of mediation between
external conditions and our subjective interior lives. She invites us to self–examination through her own willingness
to do the same.
Susan Krane: You are known primarily for your drawings, sculptures,
and installations—intimately visceral and tactile works,
often intensely private in feel. What compelled you to move into
the public realm of performance?
Mithu Sen: I think I was always performing. My idea of performance
is about my constant idea of living life. Performance is when
you enact something. I feel that whatever we are doing in life,
we are performing. A microsecond before we do anything, our
brain is planning for us to perform that part. Even now as you are
posing questions and I am answering, we are preparing ourselves
to deliver our words. In that way, everything we do is a form of
performance—as a drawer, a sculptor, a singer, a poet; as a cook,
a daughter, a driver, a cyclist, I am also playing roles. What is the
need to separate everything so dramatically? Can it not be about
being absorbed in a way of life?
Museum of Unbelongings, 2016. Plexiglas, steel, and various objects, 20 ft. diameter.
Defining things is a way of making meaning. But how much
meaning can we really make out of things? I have more fun thinking
about the meaning of the meaninglessness of things.
I also realized that, since I did not yet have my own Web site,
my “artist’s identity” on the Internet had been determined
by the voices of others, via gallery Web sites, blog posts, articles,
and catalogues that project various identities onto me. I wanted
to speak in the first person. While I was building my Web site,
I took advantage of being in a foreign land, where people might
“know” me only from short homework on the Web, to explore
doing something very “unexpected” in their minds.
SK: It’s one thing to put surreal, often eerie images of the body
out there—images that also seem to expose psychological
innards, as in your drawings and sculptures. Yet you are toying
with another level of vulnerability when you put yourself on a
public stage. As you have said, you find yourself absorbing the
energy of the people who are present.
MS: It is a practice in which everything happens simultaneously,
and I am conscious of what is happening. It is an action together—
art and life. When memories and timing are no longer separated,
when they are marching with each other, when they are happening
at one time and my consciousness is naming it at one point in time,
this is art. The documentation is not the art.
SK: Your project for the 18th Street Arts Center residency in Santa
Monica was part of “Radical Hospitality,” your loose, ongoing
series of participatory performances. You staged UNhome in City
IF Angels near the end of your stay. As you approached this iteration,
did you intend to develop any particular aspect of the
MS: I always keep myself open. I resist planning much. The performance
can happen at any time. Even after the event, I am not
done with the performance. I am trying to experiment with the
perspectives we usually have. If we can change those perspectives,
it gives much more excitement to life. When we didn’t have a calendar,
how did we think of time passing? With the experience of the flowers blooming, the seasons changing—with the experience of nature,
when you don’t get everything defined and calculated.
SK: Could you talk about your interest in the concept of hospitality, and the
components of tolerance, expectation, and obligation? Your “Radical Hospitality”
performances have largely occurred in locales where you are the
guest, an artist–in–residence in another country or in another region of India.
You turn the tables on your role as a guest, alluding to the intrinsic power
relationships at play in the act of hospitality.
MS: In guest/host relationships, there is always a power situation, and the
power goes to the host. He or she has the power of inviting guests, greeting
guests, deciding what we will do. There is the tension of how to impress each
other. The nature of your hospitality is a show of how generous, how beautiful,
how welcoming you are. Culture to culture, they are all different—
Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Western. There is always a judgment
as well. It is a very sensitive state, and if you try to change that equation—
the relationship between guest and host—things can change. Much
hospitality is a kind of pretension. It is not the true human psyche, not a
place where we expose our trueness. It’s not that you let your guest enter
your home, but rather that there is a space, just a living room or dining
room, where you are hosting them, and it is a decorated space. There is a
limit to the relationship. The guest is always a guest—not a stranger, but
not family. You cannot make your guest into a host, cannot give him or her
the power or control.
It’s Good to be Queen, 2006. Queen’s durbar hall,
installation in living room, site–specific residency project for Bose Pacia, New York.
SK: You make me think of the saying in India that you
should treat your guest like a king, like a god in your
MS: In Indian mythology, there are many examples
of extreme hospitality. The host may even offer the
guest his own wife to sleep with. That extreme hospitality
is in our thinking: How much can you offer, to
what extent can you give to your guest? Yet in giving,
the host also loses—you are actually offering your
wife to the guest. Did you get her permission? What
role are you playing by taking the power to impress
your guest? I travel extensively and am often hosted
by institutions and galleries. I always try to dig down
into the basics of who is the guest and who is the
host, who has the power and who is manipulating. SK: There is an interesting tension between what is
freely offered and openly accepted and the duality of
obligation. In this project, you ran up against the
limit of tolerance in a way that was unanticipated
and dramatic and anything but conceptual. Someone,
whom you had met and befriended in Los Angeles,
offered to let you use his sublet as the site for your
performance; then at the 11th hour, he changed his
mind and abruptly asked you to leave—45 minutes
before your “guests” were going to arrive. That’s a
radical rupture in the notion of hospitality—a harsh,
sudden demarcation of personal boundaries.
MS: I was not entirely surprised, but it shook me and
continues to do so. I thought it was an interesting
power game. The moment he realized that he had hidden
or suppressed expectations of the event, he
exploded. You can think of it in many respects, but I
don’t want to come up with any kind of explanation.
I will not think about who is right and who is wrong.
Even though I took the event forward at a nearby
park, and it was successful, I ask myself who won that
Border Unseen, , 2014. Dental polymer and artificial teeth suspended by aluminum frame and steel cables, dimensions variable.
SK: It’s a litmus test of your notion of tolerance.
MS: I put myself in a situation that is extremely vulnerable, and I
make a situation that is vulnerable for my guests. You can’t help
but act in a very pure, raw way. You show your purity as a human
being. I don’t see his act as inhuman. All characters and qualities
are human. What trigger made this person react like this at that
moment? In a black and white way, you may believe him to be
the villain. But am I not the person who provoked this situation?
Am I not the person who also planned for this accidental, dramatic
situation to happen, to indulge myself? To what extreme
can I challenge my tolerance?
SK: Your role in the situation is layered. You were going to be
hosted by him and, in turn, you were to be hosting other people.
You were an intermediary between his personal space and public
access, even if he was also, in fact, a guest in a rented space. The
original host in this chain of hosts is the unknown, absent friend
of his who owns the house, a person who is present only
metaphorically, through her belongings. Typically we assume
hospitality creates a safe space. It is a social framework that facilitates
some level of camaraderie. It implies welcome, a precommitment
to civility and geniality, and the offer of nurture via
offerings of food.
MS: I want to do things that are outside the social framework.
That is why I provoke and insist: I seduce. I do all those things
in whatever medium I use. Whether related to images of sexuality
or my use of unintelligible language, I always try to grab people
and pull them outside that box. I want to make a new rationality.
SK: The project launched with social media posts that you created
in the weeks before the performance. You refer to the posts as both
trailers and invitations. The UNhome Facebook album is also a diary
of your residency. It’s very personal, full of ordinary moments and
ordinary found objects made mysterious in your short animations,
such as your bike rides around Santa Monica with a GoPro.
MS: Media is such a powerful thing. In the ancient days, there
was always a mediator, like a priest who is a mediator with a god.
There is never direct contact, from one person to another person.
What is the need for this middle person? That is where all of our
problems start—it complicates everything when there is no oneto–
SK: How do you think these prequels to
your event set expectations for the audience?
The Facebook page has elements that
are very lyrical, poetic, and emotional in
MS: I tried to twist things a bit, with many
different poetic and philosophical contexts.
It’s social media, so it’s taken for granted
that there will be many people who will
respond to various parts—the songs, the
poetry, the visuals, some abstractness.
There is some food for everyone. This is my
idea of creating a platform, creating expectations
and desire. At the same time, I
wanted it to be ambiguous, so the vulnerability
would be there and people would be
more curious. There is some haziness to the
images and things may be pixelated, so you
see what you don’t see.
SK: I read it as a kind of experiential collage,
using social media, that runs parallel
to your drawings, sculptures, and installations
in which a multitude of small
episodes might float within the field, with
varying degrees of specificity, narrative, or
metamorphosis. The viewer’s focus meanders
curiously and generatively.
UNhome poster, 2017. Digital collage.
MS: It’s a durational thing. I know people
are missing things in each trailer. They are
missing things but seeing others. They are
not capturing everything but seeing other
things in between.
SK: Shortly after you arrived in Los Angeles,
you lost your backpack, which contained
your passport. Surprisingly, someone found
it and returned it to you intact. The woman
who found your backpack became a participant
in your performance. Did this have any
other impact on your project?
MS: I don’t separate this piece from my
day–to–day life. I took the two months of
my residency as the durational period
of this one project. I am not an intellectual
planner, so why should I act like someone
who comes up with a project and a hardcore
proposal beforehand, then materializes
I thought I’d do it the reverse way and
be completely free with the flow of life. All
the stories build up from the first day,
like with the gardenias in the studio. In two
months, I collected 17 gardenias, which
I am keeping as a calendar of my time
here. The watercolors I’ve done are also
my diaries. I used these small watercolors as the props for the little trailer films on Facebook.
You see them as if the production were really big. People asked me if I was screening
a new film at the event. Did I make a film in Hollywood? The subtle line between
serious things and humorous things got lost.
SK: Are the watercolors of palm trees the first images you’ve done in a while without the
MS: Interesting question. My Master’s project was on trees, but yes, it’s true. I was
thinking about the politics of who belongs where. The palm tree is not native to Los Angeles,
so these images are also about immigration, about refugees.
SK: The intense red areas feel visceral, as if bleeding. This red is also an ongoing characteristic
of your sculptures and figurative drawings.
MS: It’s a little clue, making it more humanized.
SK: Is there anything different about how you have been working while in Los Angeles?
MS: I did a 100–meter–long, non–stop drawing in response to my
visit to The Broad museum. I also went to the ocean at one a.m.,
but my iPhone couldn’t capture the image. What it did capture was
the sound, so I called it “a night sound drawing.” This gave me the
shape of something new. And I kept the gardenias as a note of the
days, adding another when the previous one began to wilt. It is a
calendar through the sense of smell. Some of the things I tried are
a very romantic but new way of discovering the different perspectives
UNhome screenshot, , 2017–10–06 at 11.51.56 p.m.
SK: In your handout sheet for the performance, you gave people
a mandate: no talk about blue cheese, art, Trump, or real estate.
However, UNhome in City IF Angels is particularly relevant now. You
are creating a conversation about hospitality in the context of a
country that has newly asserted inhospitality, but you forbid people
from talking about it.
MS: I am making a statement by pointing it out.
SK: The grandeur of the house in which you intended to stage your
event has class implications. Did this magnificent house in the
Hollywood Hills influence your thinking?
MS: Yes, of course. That was my very first thought when I met the
guy and he said he lived in a palatial house in Hollywood. When I
came all the way from India to L.A., I said I must not do something
in Santa Monica. On my invitation card, it will be written that it is
happening in Hollywood. The whole world is mad about Hollywood—
about the fantasy, the myth, the market of celebrity. So yes,
I was determined to make my event happen in Hollywood. I faked
an old Hollywood movie poster for my Facebook “poster.”
SK: Your subtitle is a play on “City of Angels.”
MS: “UNhome” is the first word. The way I construct my sentences,
the vernacular use of the language feels incorrect. It’s like when
you translate something with Bing—it’s a mess, but you get some
interesting ideas. I just said, “City IF Angels,” as in “Only if…” I
ended up getting a different kind of home while here, because
of the angels who supported this event.
SK: The language play recalls your use of random gibberish in other
performances. “IF Angels” ended up being particularly ironic when
one of your angels did not exactly play his part. Or maybe he did?
MS: He played the best role, as a catalyst. I have since thought
about the limits of this “Radical Hospitality” and where it can go
from here. Sharing, interaction, the human connection on different
levels—these are the things I love. In the end, the event was
magical. It was beyond magical. It was unnerving.
Susan Krane is executive director of Working Assumptions, a California
foundation that supports the arts and produces creative
projects, and a former museum director and curator.